by Michael Tracey
In his essay, “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer references Marxist thought with a level of respect but pointed to its failure in application because, as he put it, “it was an expression of the scientific narcissism we inherited from the 19th century,” motivated by the “rational mania that consciousness could stifle instinct.” I have this awful feeling that he is right, that we are driven not by the profound harmonies and profundities of evolved consciousness, but by base instinct that is primitive, not modern.
The Delicious Occupation of Gossip
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud writes of this question which Mailer was addressing, that the fundamental instinct of the species is aggression:
“Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbour is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history? This aggressive cruelty usually lies in wait for some provocation, or else it steps into the service of some other purpose, the aim of which might as well have been achieved by milder measures. In circumstances that favour it, when those forces in the mind which ordinarily inhibit it cease to operate, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien. Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities of the early migrations, of the invasion by the Huns or by the so-called Mongols under Ghenghiz Khan and Tamurlane, of the sack of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, even indeed the horrors of the last world-war, will have to bow his head humbly before the truth of this view of man.
The existence of this tendency to aggression which we can detect in ourselves and rightly presume to be present in others is the factor that disturbs our relations with our neighbours and makes it necessary for culture to institute its high demands. Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another. Their interests in their common work would not hold them together; the passions of instinct are stronger than reasoned interests. Culture has to call up every possible reinforcement in order to erect barriers against the aggressive instincts of men and hold their manifestations in check by reaction-formations in men’s minds.”
Nietzsche got there first in his own bleak rendition of the nature of the human condition, the brute forces that drive it and that mangle the Paulinian notion that love will triumph:
“To see others suffer does one good. To make others suffer even more: this is a hard (saying) but an ancient…all too human principle, to which even the apes might subscribe…without cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches…and in punishment there is festival.”
Perhaps it is then simply part of what we are, that we have an inherent disposition to vent, to aggress, to hate, feelings that require that we seek someone or something against which to vent, aggress, hate. However since we also have pretensions to being civilized, caring, human, decent, it is difficult to face up to such a loathsome disposition, so we deal with it by rationalizing it away, justifying with whatever pretext is available.
Peter Gay, in his monumental work, The Cultivation of Hatred; the Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, pours over the vast, long literatures that have sought to come to grips with this condition. He notes that:
“Aggressive acts, to begin with, are not all primitive pugilism, wanton cruelty, or routine murder. They range across a broad spectrum of verbal and physical expression, from confident self-advertisement to permissible mayhem, from sly malice to sadistic torture. They emerge as words and gestures – less fatal, to be sure, than physical violence, but little less unmistakable…The practice of invidious social comparisons is awash with aggressive impulses. So is the delicious occupation of gossip…”
It is clear, however, that no one will ever admit to arbitrary or instinctive aggression – the project of Modernity has at least been successful in convincing us of the impropriety of such a disposition. We are, after all, the Children of Reason. So how do we go about this business of aggressing, of hating? Why, of course, we find an excuse, a reason. As Gay notes, “Every culture, every class, every century, constructs its distinctive alibis for aggression.” I think that Gay is getting close to a very uncomfortable truth about who we really are, and reminds me of Gandhi’s response when asked his opinion about Western civilization: “…it would be a good idea.”
Better Angels of Our Nature
As for me and Karr, I suppose one issue I need to deal with is why I did it, why did I spend do much time helping to find him, and why was I willing to put myself through what was, in all honesty, a terrible experience. I say “suppose,” because for much of the time I have been writing this piece I had no intention of addressing these questions. Part of this was to do with a certain stubbornness in refusing to respond to the commentaries that were oh so prissy and righteous, verbal and written exemplars of how it was all so inappropriate, not what a journalist should do, not what they would do. I had this feeling that being lectured by those who covered the case was not unlike being nagged about the dangers of promiscuous sex by a nymphomaniac. It is also a bit rich to hear these critiques from a profession that in the whole saga of covering the Ramsey story were only too ready to share bodily fluids with law enforcement – in at least one case, so it is said, literally.
In the end I have relented and want to take on the issue, in a very particular way. But first let me say something that my friend and colleague Len Ackland was quick to point out to those who asked for his thoughts. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a journalist. I am a media scholar who has spent a lifetime studying journalism, who has done some journalism, numerous opinion pieces here and in the UK and, most notably, working with David Mills on the documentaries, but I have not sought the mantle of “journalist.”
However, even if I were I would still have done what I did, because in the end what is important, vital and necessary is that we define ourselves not as this or that professional but as moral beings, that our humanity should be defined by such and that when we are not guided by moral systems, by an ethical compass, then we let loose not those “better angels of our nature” that so entranced Lincoln but that dark side, that cruel and exploitative instinct that so haunted him. By an ethical compass I mean the literal definition:
“Ethic ‘eth-ik n: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation; a set of moral principles or values; a theory or system of moral values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.”
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m claiming no high moral ground and recognize that I have vices galore and that, for example, some of the women in my life have decent grounds for a war crimes tribunal. I understood that life is a constant struggle between the competing sides of our nature, and that in fact the whole issue of cultural identity, of the dialogue about what is good and bad in culture is an enlarged version of this agonizing struggle about personal identity, and the vexing question of, is this who I am, is this who I should be?
In this instance, from that first stirring of empathy for the Ramseys to the decision to find Karr, for good or ill, I sought to do the right thing, and I am perplexed that there were those who chose not to see it that way.
“It was truly intimate and very sexual.”
Let me make the point by taking you, the reader, to one moment in time, one place: July 19, 2006, Bangkok, Thailand. On that day I received an email from Daxis, with a Word document attached. Earlier in this piece I wrote of how when he first went to the school where he would be teaching he saw a number of young girls, one of whom in particular he lusted after. On the 19th he wrote a long note about her. Here it is (I have changed the names of the children):
[EDITOR”S NOTE: S&R has received a cease-and-desist request from John Mark Karr in which he alleges that his e-mail to Michael Tracey, subject “About Melanie,” enjoys copyright privilege. We do not believe that we have infringed Karr’s copyright, but are in the process of seeking legal opinion on the subject. While we explore the details of this issue, we have elected to remove the text in question.
However, this communication is and has been widely available online for some time. So while we have removed the text itself from this post for the moment, we see no reason why we shouldn’t link to it. So, we direct our readers here, where the full e-mail is available, as well as the full text of ALL Karr’s e-mails to Michael Tracey. In addition, the reader can listen to the recorded calls and view all relevant public papers concerning this case. The “About Melanie” e-mail begins on page 297 of the PDF.]
He Has His New Target
There was by the time I received this nothing that particularly surprised me, and I have no doubt that he genuinely believed that the child was attracted to him, nor that given the opportunity he would have had sex with her. Note how he talks about his interaction with her, the flirty playfulness, her attraction to him, his declaration of his patience in being willing to wait until she was in his charge in a year. In his fevered imagining she, like JonBenet, would be saying, “I love you Daxis.”
This was his new romance and in his mind it was all consensual and come hell or high water she would be his. When I read this I simply said to Tom Bennett, “ he has his new target.”
The idea that anyone would not wish to stop what was going to happen to the child because of an over-inflated sense of their “professionalism I find disgustingly dangerous. And if there are those who would still say it was all wrong to do what I did, just close your eyes and imagine that it is your five year-old child whose belly button he wants to eat and about whom he expresses his lust.
And how did it feel for me? Dealing with the media was not difficult. I’ve been doing that on and off since 1998. However, there is no doubt that 2006 turned into an awful, dark year. By its end I was exhausted. The idea of teaching in the Fall was dreadful, not because I dislike teaching since ordinarily it is, more often than not, a delightful experience. In all my many years in Colorado I have never bought out of a course or sort relief, even at the busiest times.
Yet over the summer break I went to my Dean, Paul Voakes, and asked if I could buy out of at least one course. As the words left my lips I understood that he would have to say no. He agreed to discuss this with the Provost, Phil DiStephano. I also knew that Phil would have to say no. The reason was simple, since that group of people who hated me and the Ramseys – and the degree of their vitriol is truly splendid to behold – would be watching me like a hawk and at the first sign of special treatment (even though buying out of a course and banking courses is routine) they would be screaming holy hell. I managed to get through the Fall semester, even though I knew I was missing a beat, and in fact found the classroom pleasantly therapeutic.
What I did come to understand was that while being attacked publicly and viciously is never pleasant, I was used to it and could handle it without too much difficulty (my therapist disagrees). The mood of deep despair, anxiety, sadness that descended on me like a thick, cold, clinging fog came from the experience of having to deal with dark intelligence day in day out, for months on end.
I will never forget the Saturday night following the phone conversation in which Daxis had, at great length, described how he killed her. I sat in my study until the sun set. It was dark, and I sat there thinking about what I had just heard, not knowing if it was true or not, but ethically feeling that I had to continue to believe that it might be, and knowing that, true or not, something similar to what he had described had happened to that child, as evidenced in the awful autopsy photos. In my mind’s eye the images of his description ran constantly, like a permanent reel of film, replaying over and over.
I could not get rid of one image in particular, that of his tying the ligatures to her wrists and then hanging her from the window. I don’t know how long I sat there, but there came a point when I could hold it inside no longer and, for the first time in almost a decade of thinking about and talking about the appalling things that were done to JonBenet and to her family, I started to sob. Not just tearing up, not just tears running down my cheeks but a flood and a wail of anguish and sorrow. In that sense Karr may not have killed JonBenet, but he sure as hell came close to destroying me.
He Cries for Understanding and Forgiveness
Patsy Ramsey died in the early hours of June 24th, 2006. The funeral service was on June 29th at the United Methodist Church, Roswell, Georgia. I had flown there with Pete Hofstrom, former number two in the Boulder DA’s office, Bryan Morgan, John’s attorney and Pat Burke, Patsy’s attorney. Lou Smit was there as was Hal Haddon, Morgan’s law partner, and Trip DeMeuth who had, when he was an assistant DA, fought passionately to get other people to take Lou Smit’s “intruder” argument (I refuse to call it a theory anymore). Mary Lacy and her husband were also there, as was Ollie Gray, who for several years had been working with Lou on their own, private investigation of JonBenet’s death.
I think for everyone it was simply important to show a kind of solidarity for this poor woman. The service lasted about 40 minutes and was a celebration of her life, with passing reference to, but no lingering on, that wretched Christmas night almost ten years before. Her sisters were there, wearing large summer hats, a silent, colourful reminder of Patsy’s love for her own hats. After the funeral a long line of cars proceeded on the drive to St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, where Patsy would be laid to rest alongside her mother Nedra, her step daughter, Beth (John’s child, who had been killed in a car crash in 1992) and but a few paces from JonBenet’s grave. The drive from church to cemetery took about 30 minutes and police and state troopers cleared the roads, closing off side streets, to allow the cortege to proceed unhindered.
As I looked out of the car windows there was a surprising, moving sight. The officers were standing to attention, some saluted, troopers held their hats over their hearts. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to suggest that they were not just paying their respects, they were acknowledging what the rest of us there knew with a passion, that the only thing that Patsy had ever done to JonBenet was love her. There would of course be those who continued to believe in her guilt, even if they no longer cared. And then there are the remnants of the mob that would continue to hate her, but for them hating is what oxygen is to the rest of us.
The press coverage the following day was unusually caring, not dwelling on the accusations against this most maligned of women. The coverage noted that cops were taking video tapes of all the car plates, reporting that they had been told that this was because the case remained open and this was just a precaution. In reality they were looking for Daxis.
In April 2007, I received an email from “Daxis.” It was written in German and apparently asked the question of where deception begins. A few more came as he expressed his desire to talk, again. In July he wrote: “I ache for her, Michael. I feel such confusion. I am so utterly confused about what happened.”
In a later one in July, he asked me if I had seen an interview he had done with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. I had, and realized that he was still trying to convince the world that he was responsible for JonBenet’s death. At one point Van Susteren, clearly bewildered by this, asks him if he understood the difference between first and second degree murder, to which he instantly replied, “of course, first implies intent.”
There it was again, what I had spent months listening to – it was an accident, it wasn’t meant to be. I replied, briefly, that at least he was consistent. He replied: “Thank you, Michael. I shall continue to be consistent when it comes to my darling JonBenet. I am glad you saw that interview. I’ve regrets about some of the things I said only to protect myself. For instance, I think of her every day. There is not a time when I am not thinking of her. I wanted to say that so bad but was not afforded such. I look forward to the day when you can respond with more than a sentence or two. Michael, listen to me carefully – nothing has changed. I am the same man you knew me to be. Law enforcement’s worst mistakes cannot change that. We’ll talk about it all more on Friday.” No we won’t, I thought.
John Ramsey today lives with his son Burke in Charlevoix, Michigan. John Mark Karr lives in the Atlanta area and has a fiancé who lives in Las Vegas with her young daughter. He visits regularly the graves of Patsy and JonBenet. In the early summer of 2007 he placed by her grave a large angel holding chimes. He also placed a pot of violets, a small crystal bear and her August birth stone. He sits and cries, and asks, as always, for understanding and forgiveness.